Week 5 Blog: Achaemenid vs. Assyrian Imperial Ideology

Compare and contrast Achaemenid and Assyrian imperial ideologies (as presented in the text) and how they are expressed through art.  The visual picture presented by Achaemenid art differs from that presented in Assyrian palaces in many important respects; does this equate to a difference in ideology?

Due 10 p.m. Wednesday, Feb 9



6 responses to “Week 5 Blog: Achaemenid vs. Assyrian Imperial Ideology

  • Ena Dekanic

    Although the so-called “eclecticism” of Achaemenid art borrowed extensively from the traditions of other cultures, including Assyrian, Achaemenid imperial ideology as expressed through inscriptions and images differed from that of the Assyrians. As Root and Nylander argue, whereas Assyrian imperial ideology focused on conquest and reprisal as the chief strategy for hegemonic rule, the “world empire” of the Achaemenids favored cultural incorporation and a “universally applicable ethic of cooperation” (Root, 22).

    In terms of text, Assyrian and Achaemenid inscriptions undoubtedly share many characteristics, consistent with the Achaemenids’ co-optation of the traditions of the conquered regions of Mesopotamia. Inscriptions from both cultures, for example, consistently invoked the gods as the source of success, strength, and authority. Sargon, in his letter to Ashur, attributes victory to the “encouragement of Ashur, Shamash, Naba and Marduk.” Similarly, in the Bisitun Inscription, Darius the king repeatedly says, “By the favour of Ahura Mazda I am king. Ahura Mazda bestowed kingship upon me.” Likewise, imperial inscriptions from both cultures rely on comparable royal epithets. (Compare “I am Ashurnasirpal, strong king, king of the world, king without rival, king of all the four quarters of the world” to “ I, Cyrus, king of the world, great king, mighty king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world.”) At the same time, however, Nylander argues that, in contrast to the “vivid, brutal” chronicles of the Assyrian kings, Achaemenid inscriptions hinted at conflict and conquest “only in vague and general terms” (346). As Root elaborates, whereas Assyrian texts stress military might, Achaemenid texts emphasize cooperation, as evidenced by Darius’ tomb inscription – “The man who cooperates, him according to his cooperative action, him thus do I reward” (22).

    The Achaemenid “ideology of commonwealth” (Nylander, 356) is also seen in art. Despite stylistic similarities between Assyrian and Achaemenid art, Achaemenid art embodies an imperial ideology based not on conquest and reprisal, but on a “carefully calibrated rhetoric of harmonious order and potential for incorporation” (Root, 26). Nylander points to “dignified, calm” Achaemenid tribute processions that, rather than denote submission, portray “integrity and respect,” as well as “willing participation” (354). Similarly, Root traces how the Bisitun monument visually eschews the “ultimate dehumanizing aspects of conquest and subjugation” in favor of portraying an ideology of cooperation (26).

    Given the body of evidence and the analyses of Root and Nylander, it seems that the differences between Assyrian and Achaemenid inscriptions and art, in which the Achaemenids manipulated the conventions of the earlier Assyrians, do equate to a difference in ideology.

  • Lili Dodderidge

    For the past few weeks, our readings have primarily focused on the Assyrian imperial ideology as it is depicted in art, one that commands a sense of authority and domination over foreign invaders and enemies. To read about the Achaemenid Persian ideology is quite refreshing, presenting an idea of inclusiveness and cultural identity appreciation necessary to the successful functioning of the state.

    In Margaret Root’s article, the Achaemenid Persian empire is described as, “the first empire in world history based ideologically on the embrace of diverse peoples into an incorporated whole as a primary strategy of hegemonic acquisition and maintenance over a vast realm” (19). Rather than erase the identities of the captured—as seen in the Neo-Assyrian era—the Achaemenids embraced their foreign land citizens with a welcoming, culturally incorporative attitude. Their artwork presents this ideology, mostly in the forms of allegorical and metaphorical images. This method of ideological distribution through art allowed the Achaemenids to reach the diverse populations of their empire, using common symbols to show the rulers’ respect for and cooperation with diversity.

    This idea of tolerance was something that starkly differed from the ideology of the Assyrians. Assyrian rulers preferred to intimidate their enemies—and their citizens—with overwhelmingly graphic and brutal portrayals of violence and torture. Power and strength dominated the interpretations of Assyrian ideology, while community and respect elicited the understanding of Achaemenid Persian ideology.

    Two pictures, one from each empire, accurately sum up the ideologies of each governing state. The Achaemenind art, found here https://powerimagepropaganda.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/persepolis.pdf about half way down the document, portrays the delegation from the Central Asian Tribe. Each of the depicted rulers from the various Central Asia states—Libya, Armenia, India, just to name a few—are crafted with equal attention to that of the Achaemenid ruler. One is not taller or more muscular than another, and all seem to be working together in solidarity. This image sums up the idea of connecting peoples from conquered or potentially conquerable empires together to work toward a peaceful community of respect; the power of the empire can only come from the cohesiveness of its people.

    The Assyrians, on the other hand, take a different approach to portraying their imperial ideology. Seen here https://powerimagepropaganda.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/ashurbanipal.pdf again about half way down the document, Assyrian artists depict a siege of an Egyptian town. Assyrian soldiers progress down a hill, carrying the heads of Egyptians victoriously; meanwhile, slain Egyptians fall from a great height while Assyrians remain armed and at the ready to attack any enemy that appears. The graphic violence in this scene of a typical military conquest of the empire does not show much regard for the people whom they are defeating. Carl Nylander notes in his article on Achaemenid imperial art that the Assyrians’ vivid pictorials juxtaposed with the vague inscriptions of Achaemenid “battle” scenes illuminates the key cultural differences in ideologies between the two empires (346).

    What can be said, however, for the similarities between the two empires lies in the bottom-line reason for each one’s ideology. Every empire used their art as a source of communication with their people; art reaches the masses, allowing officials to connect to both citizens and foreigners or enemies. Both the Assyrian and Achaemenid empires used their art for this purpose; there is just an innate difference between the two ruling states’ ideologies for which they used the art. While Assyrians maintained a heavy and threatening hand over their empire, the Achaemenids encouraged a diverse cultural identity to be formed amongst the nations of the empire in order to maintain and preserve the integrity of both the state and its people.

  • Allene Seet

    The main difference between Assyrian and Achaemenid ideology seems to be in how they deal with hegemonic acquisition. This includes the treatment of enemies expressed through art and imperial inscriptions.
    In Assyrian art there are many subtle visual clues that tell us who is an Assyrian soldier and who is an enemy combatant, or a captured civilian. The soldiers are usually taller and martial-looking, with heavily incised musculature. Captives are bound, slouch, and are generally rendered less impressively. The Lachish narrative emphasizes these points particularly well, especially as it pertains to the depiction of captives. In the narrative, a line of civilian captives solemnly march along an incised diagonal line from the main citadel of Lachish. The diagonal is most likely used here to represent movement in a less static way, especially as opposed to the portrayal of movement in Assurbanipal’s reliefs.
    We should consider what the captives are actually doing, even though it seems simple enough. I described them as marching; but are they marching or fleeing? Perhaps the diagonal line plays some role in the speed with which they left Lachish. This different is significant because the manner in which the captives flee plays into the Assyrian reliance on control by fear, or perceived threats of violence. However, the captives leave holding belongings, so it doesn’t initially seem that they left in a hurry out of fear for the Assyrians. Rather, the portrayal of their belongings makes the removal of the captives more thorough and calculated. This relates to the Assyrians’ reliance on deportation of captured peoples as a means of territorial expansion and control, and what Root calls the “erasure” of subsumed peoples. This is both a reality and a subtle threat; the question is whether this “quiet” sort of violence equates (in theory) with more conspicuous portrayals, such as the severed heads.
    While there is certainly violence present in Achaemenid art, there is also the presence of harmony. This lies, according to Root, in the empire’s ideological evolution out of Zoroastrian ideals of truth, justice, and righteousness. Instead of violent threats and identity erasure, we see “cultural incorporation” where the language and ideology of conquered peoples are embraced by the Achaemenids. This is emphasized in the Behistun inscription, which deviates greatly from Assyrian annalistic narrative by employing detail and pathos without dehumanizing armies; there is a sense that both the conqueror and the conquered with benefit mutually from acquisition. There is an emphasis on the role of Ahuramazda’s creation of the sea, desert, mountains- land occupied by “all languages.” In Assyrian reliefs, on the other hand, Ashur seems less inclined towards clemency and often accompanies his divinely ordained ruler in battle.
    There is an overall sense that the Achaemenids are just one people out of many, as opposed to the desire for an heavy emphasis on (universal?) control that seems to pervade Assyrian art. This signifies a distinct difference in ideology.

  • Sarah Murphy

    While both Assyrian and Achaemenid texts describe their respective rulers, the manner in which the inscriptions describe the kings is quite different. In a royal epithet describing Ashurnasirpal, the reader learns that this king “rules each and every person… [and] tramples all enemies” (Chavalas 287). From this part of the inscription, the reader gets an image of a fierce, almost bloodthirsty leader. In contrast, an inscription describing Darius does not really mention enemies except when talking about a “rebel”; even then, the imagery is not violent. Instead, the inscription emphasizes Darius’ good judgment when meeting a rebel. The text from the Second inscription from Naqs-e Rustam has a lot more imagery about theoretical ideas of what is “Right” (Brosius 64). Both inscriptions, however, mention the kings’ reliance on divinity. The epithet states that Ashurnasirpal “moves about with the help of great gods” (287). The inscription about Darius frequently mentions that the king has specific talents “by the favor of Ahura Mazda” (65). The inclusion of gods in both inscriptions indicate that both rulers recognize the importance of their subjects’ belief in the gods’ favor.
    The Assyrian epithet describes Ashurnasirpal in very active, physical language, stating what the king does. Ashurnasirpal has “conquered all lands” and is a “seizer of hostages” and “establisher of victory” (287). While these descriptions seem to be referring to specific instances, no specific battle or enemy is mentioned. While the inscription about Darious also lacks mention of specific events, its characterization of the king is more focused on qualities of Darius, rather than actions. Darius “desires what is right,” and he is a good horseman and a good bowman (64).By focusing instead on the personality of Darius, the inscription makes the king seem less intimidating without making him seem weak. In contrast, Ashurnasirpal sounds somewhat violent, but the reader is likely to trust him for protection.
    Contrasts in depictions of rulers are also evident in Assyrian and Achaemenid art. In the banqueting relief of Ashurbanipal, the king is seated higher above anyone and is reclining. This indicates that he is the most important person on the relief and both the attendants’ and the audience’s attention should be on him. In contrast, on a relief from the treasury at Persepolis, the king Darius is also seated, but you don’t feel like you are being forced to pay attention to him. Instead, the audience senses a quiet authority emanating from him that produces a feeling of respect in the viewer. While Ashurbanipal’s attendants are all serving him and doing what may be deemed menial tasks, Darius’ attendants stand quietly behind him; they too seem to have a naturally inspired respect for the king. Ashurbanipal is intimidating in a subtle but unsettling way; the viewer notices this most acutely when he finally sees the hanging head of the enemy. Darius seems to be a reasonable judge from his position. The viewer respects him, and from this respect recognizes his authority and ability to take care of his people.
    While both cultures rely on depictions of their kings to convey a message, the messages the societies convey is fairly different. Assyrians seem to rely more on fear to convey the power of the king; Achaemenids, however, focus on presenting the king as a reasonable, protective judge.

  • Danny Rivera

    First, and most obviously, differences in art could most certainly suggest differences in ideology. When scholars link the content of the art, and the creation of the art of the period in general, to the king, changes in art simply must imply changes in the king. It is practically a one-to-one correlation: what the art shows, the king thought. I say this because there seems to be, in what I have learned so far in this course, that art at this time was not easily and quickly created (relatively) as a means of self-expression, but was rather a calculated effort involving a team of trained artisans. After all, this was work was going to be displayed in the king’s throne room: it had to be taken seriously. So, to answer the question, yes, differences in portrayal can, and most probably did, suggest a difference in imperial ideologies.
    The importance here is exactly how the ideologies differed, and we can draw those conclusions from the art and the accompanying inscriptions. As Root and Nylander point out, and as my classmates have already pointed out, the obvious difference in ideology was the Assyrian preference of dominant, militant rule compared with the cooperative rule of the Achaemenid kings. Root points out, however, that the Achaemenid kings did mention conquest in their inscriptions, however vaguely. The conclusion I draw from this is that they looked upon conquest as a necessary part of being a ruler and for the expansion of the kingdom, but did not celebrate it as the Assyrians may have. For every depiction of an Achaemenid defeat of an enemy, there are several more of an Assyrian conquest, and those enemies are more than likely being treated in the most brutal of ways.
    Furthermore, Ena pointed out that both Assyrian and Achaemenid kings placed a prime importance on the role of the gods in their success, constantly thanking them in their respective inscriptions. The conclusion I draw from this, however, is that the Assyrians and the Achaemenids had different ideas of what was important to the gods themselves. For the Assyrians, the gods were a supernatural extension of their weapons, helping them in combat–among other things–and were integral in the expansion of the kingdom. The Achaemenids attributed much of their success to their gods as well, however, as is depicted in their art and described in their transcriptions, what they valued most was cooperation and inclusion of other civilizations. The Assyrian gods were gods of conquest and power, and the Achaemenid gods were gods of expansion through cooperation. Of course, this is a gross oversimplification of the roles these civilizations attributed to their gods, but there is just so much evidence supporting these claims that we can at least classify them as such for the sake of a temporary argument.

  • Ryan Day

    One thing I found interesting about the difference between Assyrian and Achaemenid art is that the Assyrian art attempts to portray military might through its depictions of warriors and Kings vanquishing their enemies. Achaemenid art seems to be more focused on the art itself, and the magnificence that it conveys. Darius’s hundred column hall is a good example of the majesty of the Achaemenid empire.

    The Assyrians used their artworks to show their military prowess by presenting themselves as conquerors. The Achaemenids seem to have thought on a deeper level. They knew that art could be manipulated to convey whatever message was desired, but the presence of the art could not be manipulated. A stele could convey a message of power when there was no power, but the construction of a new fortress truly conveys the power of a society.

    The assyrians are a bit like bullies on a playground. They can rough people up a bit and they’re proud of it, but the Achaemenids are more mature than that. The Achaemenids show there power, not by roughing people up (not that they didn’t on occasion) but by displaying their great wealth and influence through art.

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